5. Low-level disruption

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Peps McCrea

Low-level disruption refers to relatively small but persistent distractions that many teachers will come across. Pupils talking when the teacher is, refusing to work with a talk partner, prodding a pupil when sitting on the carpet. These are distractions that can get in the way of learning, particularly during teacher-led instruction. This is different, of course, from interactions that occur when pupil are involved in meaningful activity, such as child-initiated play. It may be tempted to ignore low-level disruption, but it can reduce both the amount and quality of thought that pupils give to their work. So teachers need to find ways of reducing low-level disruption and supporting all pupils to stay on task.

Presenter main

When teachers respond quickly to low-level disruption, they send a clear message to their pupils that they have high expectations of them all. They show that they want to create the most effective learning environment possible, one in which all pupils have the opportunity to think, learn and grow. So what can teachers do? We might divide our approach in two. There are proactive strategies and reactive strategies.

Proactive strategies are things that teachers can do to prevent low-level disruption. Reactive strategies are ways to respond when it occurs.

Proactive strategies include things like clear routines and instructions, naming the positive behaviour that will help learning, and acknowledging positive behaviour when it occurs. Reactive strategies include pausing mid-sentence if a pupil is talking when a teacher is, reminding pupils of expectations or addressing an individual directly. For example, in an EYFS setting where a child is playing with another child’s chair on the carpet, you might quickly say the pupil’s name and state what they should do: “Theo, looking at the picture.” These are all least intrusive responses which teachers can deliver quickly without drawing too much attention to the disruption. There may be times when this won’t be enough, such as when bullying or behaviour threatens emotional safety. Teachers need to choose a response that is appropriate to the behaviour.

If a pupil is talking when the teacher is, the teacher can pause, wait until the pupil has stopped and then continue. When pupils haven’t followed the instructions that a teacher has given, it can be helpful for teachers to quickly and clearly restate or remind them of their expectations. Restating expectations can be helpful if a pupil hasn’t understood them. Reminding pupils helps if they’ve forgotten. Regular opportunities to follow instructions benefit all pupils.

Sometimes addressing an individual pupil directly with a concise reminder will be most appropriate: “Kaley, facing me.” Pupils often respond positively when they know that a teacher has addressed low-level disruption. It can help to build a culture of mutual trust.

It’s important that teachers respond to low-level disruption calmly and consistently using a neutral tone, including reference to the shared values of the classroom and school, and applying them fairly to all pupils. This can help to create a supportive and inclusive environment that benefits all pupils.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see a model of how to respond to low level disruption. Look out for the following.

  • Responds quickly to low-level disruption using least-intrusive interventions
  • Responds consistently to pupil behaviour

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

Low-level disruption can be a real problem in classrooms, and we need to address it quickly. I’m going to model some of the ways in which you can do this. The context is a year 10 music lesson. The pupils have been working at their keyboards working on their compositions, and I have now signalled for them to remove their headphones so they can hear me.

“Okay, so when I finish speaking, I want you to turn off your

[Teacher pauses and waits to gain full attention of the class]

Turn off your keyboards, unplug your headphones, and turn to show me that you’re ready. Off you go.

[Teacher stands still, intentionally scanning classroom to spot pupils who are following instructions]

I’ve got the back table facing me.

[Teacher notices a few pupils not following instructions]

Just waiting for three more people.

Okay, we’re ready. Okay, so Kaitlin I want you to play the first four bars of your composition, okay?

Everybody else, hands off your keyboards and listening out for the 4/4 time signature. Off you go.

[Teacher approaches a pupil who has not followed instruction and addresses them directly, in a quiet and neutral tone]

Riley, hands off the keyboard please.”

In this example, I used several proactive and reactive interventions for low-level disruption. Remember that you might not need to use all of these strategies at once or in the same order.

Firstly, I stopped speaking when one pupil was fiddling with the headphone wire. This was a reactive strategy. In my classroom, I’ve established the expectation that pupils need to look at me when I’m speaking. Pausing in a way which is obvious when one pupil is off task is often enough to get their attention and remind them and the others of the expectation to look at me. I’ve consistently maintained this expectation, and over time, the vast majority of pupils meet it.

A proactive approach I used was to use a positive frame. When some of the pupils were not unplugging headphones and turning off keyboards as I expected, I focused first on those that were. A quick reminder to pupils of what I expect them to do is often enough to stop low level disruption. I then follow this up with a second reminder, “I’m waiting for three pupils”. An anonymous reminder like this can help get pupils get back on track without drawing lots of attention to the negative behaviour.

Finally, I modelled how to respond on an individual basis where appropriate. Riley wasn’t sitting still and listening to the composition as he had been asked to do. So I walked up to his desk and give him a clear reminder: “Riley, hands off the keyboard”. As with the previous examples, I used a quiet tone so as not to escalate the situation, but equally, I made my expectations clear. There should be no room for confusion or disagreement here. Notice that my tone throughout was formal and neutral when issuing the intervention. I reverted to my original tone when pupils were back on task. I want to respond to low-level disruption in the same consistent manner whenever it occurs. Spot it, address it and get back on with the lesson as quickly as possible.

Presenter key ideas

This video has covered a range of ideas and strategies to help you respond to low-level disruption. Read over the key ideas before you finish. Which of these ideas will you focus on first?

  • Use early and least intrusive interventions as an initial response to low-level disruption.
  • Establish a supportive and inclusive environment by giving pupils opportunities to follow instructions.
  • Respond consistently to pupil behaviour.

Presenter summary

Responding to low-level disruption isn’t something that only new teachers should think about. Staying on task can be difficult for all pupils. Learning requires effort, and sometimes it feels hard. All teachers need to be aware of this and know how they will respond when a pupil gets off task. This will help to maintain a positive and effective learning environment for all.

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Teaching challenge

Ms Silva feels she can secure positive behaviour from most pupils most of the time. However, she occasionally finds a few pupils are not following her instructions or are being disruptive in subtle ways. For example, having whispered conversations during a silent task, or turning around to talk to others when she is not looking. Ms Silva worries that, over time, others will begin to follow suit. How can she address this low-level disruption?

Key idea

Tackling low-level disruption – both proactively and reactively – can improve learning and foster a positive classroom environment over time.

Evidence summary

Proactively addressing low-level disruption

Ms Silva has noticed occasional instances of low-level disruption. Research suggests there is a link between time on task and pupil learning (Muijs & Reynolds, 2010), so low-level disruption is a problem because it reduces time on task, making the learning environment less effective. Effective teaching can address this by proactively avoiding problem behaviours where possible and reacting to get learning back on track (IES, 2008).

In effective learning environments, pupils are clear about what they are expected to do (IES, 2008). Ms Silva has already considered how to convey clear behavioural expectations through routines, instructions and directing pupil attention. Fundamental to this is ensuring expectations are specific enough for pupils to know exactly what they are expected to do, without any confusion or ambiguity, making it less likely they’ll go off-task. For example, ”I expect everyone to be silent, with pens down and eyes on me” is more concrete than “I need your attention”, where it is not clear whether pupils are still allowed to talk, where they should be facing or what exactly they should be doing. In the second example confusion or ambiguity could lead to pupils going off-task. Alongside clear behavioural expectations it is also helpful if teachers explain the purpose and benefits of a task so pupils know both what they are expected to do and why.

She can also be proactive by positively reinforcing these expectations through acknowledgement, drawing attention to these behaviours. For example, once she has shared a concrete behaviour, she can say ”I can hear Sarah and Katie talking in partner voices about question 2.” She could also make links to shared values and classroom and school culture: “I can see Katie and Sarah are taking turns, which is respectful.” She should however avoid lavish praise unless expectations have been exceeded, as unwarranted praise lowers pupil motivation (Coe et al., 2014).

Reactive teacher reminders help pupils stay on task

Reminders are powerful reactive strategies to ensure pupils successfully stay on task once proactive strategies have been used. While clear and concise expectations help pupils understand what strategies are best applied to tasks, effective reminders can help pupils follow through with those strategies (IES, 2008). Many of the strategies that teachers employ to direct pupil attention are also useful for tackling low-level disruption.

For example:

  • Anonymous & positive framing: Picking out examples of expected behaviour without naming names. “I can see four people have already opened their exercise books.”
  • Targeting specific pupil behaviours: Naming and reminding particular pupils what they should be doing using concise language. “Edward: facing your partner.”
  • Private correction: If pupils need a further reminder or sanction, doing this privately, where possible, in a quick one to one conversation avoids class attention and saves face for the pupil. For example, quietly saying to an individual “That’s a first consequence. I should see you facing your partner discussing the work.”
  • Highlighting the benefits: Teachers can briefly remind pupils of the purpose of the task and how it might help them achieve their goals during the task. “Knowing your number bonds will help you solve numerical problems much faster.”

Taken together, such strategies can reduce low-level disruption and increase the likelihood that pupils successfully complete tasks. Effective learning environments are predictable (IES, 2008), so Ms Silva needs to be consistent with her reminders, for example by linking them to school rules and behavioural expectations.

Improving pupil-teacher relationships

Consistently addressing low-level disruption can also improve pupil-teacher relationships and pupil wellbeing. Pupils have positive perceptions of predictable and secure learning environments, where teachers effectively monitor and manage the class (Rathmann et al., 2018). In contrast, when teachers show low expectations of pupil success, this can lead to reduced pupil self-belief and motivation (Tsiplakies & Keramida, 2010). This can sometimes happen in an unspoken and unintentional way. For example, correcting minor transgressions by some pupils but not others can imply the teacher thinks some pupils are more likely to misbehave or less able to complete a task than others. This can have a knock-on effect on pupil motivation and learning, which can be particularly detrimental for low-attaining pupils (Gutman & Schoon, 2013). Teachers must be careful not to inadvertently communicate low expectations by permitting low-level disruption or being inconsistent. What we permit, we promote.

Nuances and caveats

Teachers do not need to respond in a subtle way to every instance of disruption. School behaviour policies often have rewards and sanctions and it is appropriate to use these, particularly to address significant disruption. But where possible, proactive, least intrusive and positive reinforcement of clear behavioural expectations are most effective (IES, 2008). Prevention is better than cure.

Negative pupil emotions can also lead to low-level disruption where pupils avoid learning. This can happen where pupils suspect they might fail at a task, especially when failure poses a threat to their positive self-image (Kluger & DeNisi 1996). In the longer-term, teachers can address this by developing pupils’ ability to self-regulate their emotions (EEF, 2017). Immediately, teachers can usually avoid this issue by ensuring clear expectations and reminders give pupils the best chance of being successful. Teachers can also make extra reminders and help private, to preserve pupil self-image in front of their peers and give pupils time to respond to the correction, to overcome possible emotional responses to having their behaviour corrected.

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can begin to address low-level disruption by understanding that:

  • Addressing low-level disruption means supporting pupils to meet clear behavioural expectations that ensure the learning environment is effective and that pupils remain on task.
  • This can be achieved through proactively communicating expectations and reactively reminding pupils in a way which is consistent, proportionate and reinforces wider school expectations.
  • Consistently addressing low-level disruption can improve pupil-teacher relationships and classroom culture.

Further reading

EEF (2019) Improving behaviour in schools.


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching: Review of the underpinning research. Durham University.

EEF (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report.

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Muijs, D. & Reynolds, D. (2010). Effective Teaching. London: SAGE Publications.

Rathmann K., Herke M., Hurrelmann K. & Richter M. (2018). Perceived class climate and school-aged children’s life satisfaction: The role of the learning environment in classrooms. PLOS ONE.

Tsiplakides, I. & Keramida, A. (2010). The relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement in the teaching of English as a foreign language. English Language Teaching


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Silva can begin to address low-level disruption by understanding that:

  • Addressing low-level disruption means supporting pupils to meet clear behavioural expectations that ensure the learning environment is effective and that pupils remain on task.
  • This can be achieved through proactively communicating expectations and reactively reminding pupils in a way which is consistent, proportionate and reinforces wider school expectations.
  • Consistently addressing low-level disruption can improve pupil-teacher relationships and classroom culture.

Reflection on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?